The word “perfect’ within the scriptures has caused much misunderstanding and even offense. The very sound of it is hard to bear. And yet, it is our calling. We are called to “press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:12-15).
First let us show what Christian perfection is not. We cannot, for example, be perfect in knowledge. We can know a lot, both of the natural and spiritual realms, but never everything. As human beings, we can only know in part (I Corinthians 13:12). Our perspectives color our reality. Even regarding the scriptures, interpretations vary and disagreements occur. We cannot expect anyone to be infallible, any more than we can expect them to be omniscient – not as incarnate human beings. Perfect knowledge is not possible, and we get into trouble when we start to believe that it is.
Next, we can’t have perfect health. We all have bodily weaknesses and inward imperfections that are not of a moral nature, such as slowness of understanding, confusion, loss of memory. While we must be gracious with one another, we should not use this as an excuse for sin. Don’t catch yourself saying, “I can’t help it” or “Everyone has a weakness and mine is drunkenness or uncleanness, or taking God’s name in vain, or returning anger for anger.” This argument is foolishness (Matthew 5:22; I Peter 3:9). By God’s grace, we can overcome the sins that keep us from living in the love of God. But, in this life, we are never free from temptation. Even the Son of God was tempted, even to the end of his life. (Hebrews 2:18; 4:15; 6:7).
So, in what ways are we called to perfection or wholeness? The answer is found in the word “holiness.” To be perfect is to be holy, and to be holy is for God’s love to be fully present, or “fulfilled,” in and through us. This is possible, even as we still “see in part.”
An analogy to physical growth is helpful. The Apostle John, for example, speaks of little children whose sins are forgiven and who are justified freely through Jesus Christ. (I John 2:12, see also Romans 5:1). He then speaks of young adults who overcome the wicked one, who are strong, and who have the word of God abiding in them (I John 2:13-14). They have “quenched the fiery darts of the wicked one.” (Ephesians 6:16). He speaks next of parents, who have known God from the beginning (I John 2:13), those who have grown up “to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:13). Even as grace is fulfilled in us, we are called to “grow in grace” (2 Peter 3:18) and advance daily in the love of God (Philippians 1:9).
Even babes in Christ are perfect, in the sense of being born of God. By grace, they are dead unto sin, and alive unto God (Romans 6:11). Sin has no dominion over them – sin in the basic sense of being alienated from God. By the Holy Spirit, they are able to strive towards the goal of perfection in love, which is already planted within them. To not believe this is possible is to give into the devil and deny our “new birth in the Spirit.” The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, “to destroy the works of the devil. Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God’s seed abides in them.” (I John 3:8-9).
To counter this optimistic view of the calling of God, some point to sin among the saints. It is true that Abraham sinned in denying his wife; Moses sinned when he provoked God at the waters of strife; David, the man after God’s own heart, sinned even to the point of adultery and murder. Yes, all of this is true. These men of God sometimes committed sin, but we cannot then claim that it is inevitable for all.
At the same time, we proclaim that we are under a new dispensation, no longer under the law, but now empowered by the Spirit. This great salvation from sin was given after Jesus had been glorified and the Holy Spirit came upon the church (see I Peter 1:9-10; John 7:39; Acts 2:1).
Christ Jesus has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel (2 Timothy 1:10). The Holy Spirit is at work, bringing us into this light, and cultivating God’s fruits to grow in us and to be shared through us. God’s glory came to Israel, chiseled in stone, so much so that the people could not even gaze at Moses’ face. The question is: “how much more will the ministry of the Spirit come in glory? (2 Corinthians 3:7-9). It is possible for us to know the pure and perfect love of God in this life. We can walk, not after the flesh, but in the Spirit, with whom there is no condemnation but only love (Romans 8:2f).
Some might ask about sin in the Apostles themselves. We hear, for example, of Paul’s contention with Barnabas (Acts 15:39) and Peter in his dissimulation at Antioch (Galatians 2:11). Even if they did commit sin, we cannot infer that all others committed sin, or that we must continue in sin all of our days. Why are so many arguing for sin and turning faith into “just” believing, “just” affirming doctrine, without trusting in any real change within us, thinking that we are only “managing” sin until we get to heaven? There is no necessity of sin upon us. God forbid!
Many use St. Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” as an example of continuing sin (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). This passage is used as “one of the strong-holds of the patrons of sin.” We must point out that this thorn does not have to be sin or suggest the inevitability of sinning. Church Fathers, from Tertullian to St. Jerome, thought that it was a bodily pain or torment. It was a “thorn to the flesh.” To this the Lord says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness:” Whatever it was, it could not be sin, rooted in pride, anger, greed, or lust. Can we truly think that Paul would glorify such harmful and divisive temperaments? Would he take pleasure in such infirmities? Do these weaknesses make us strong? No. We must infer that, by God’s grace, this weakness that had been with him for years, increased his faithfulness and fruitfulness. It brought transformation.
How do we then reconcile John’s words, for he also says, “If we say we have not sinned, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us, and we make Christ a liar.” These verses do not assert that we must intentionally commit sin. The passage also says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (I John 1:8-10). In this light, we must affirm that Jesus Christ cleanses us from sin. He also says, “Go and sin no more.” (John 8:11).
Does Jesus then save us from our sin? Some will say yes, but not until death and not in this world. But how do we then reconcile this with all the words of scriptures that say we are being transformed into the likeness of Christ, that we are being perfected in love and in the knowledge of Jesus Christ? We clearly hear that we are to be like our master, in this world (I John 4:17). We are called to walk in the light as Christ is in the light (I John 1:7). We are able to say, “I am crucified with Christ; it is not I who live but Christ who lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20). In Christ, our hearts are purified from pride, self-will, and anger. Our hearts are transformed by gentleness and patience and we are able to bear fruit that brings God’s perfect love into the world (Acts 15:9, I John 3:3; Matthew 7:17-21; Matthew 11:29).
Let us pray David’s prayer, “Create in me a clean heart and renew a right spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10). This prayer is not said in vain. Or in the words of Ezekiel, we hear God say, “I will sprinkle clean water upon you and you shall be clean … a new heart I will give you and a new spirit.” (Ezekiel 36:25). Having these promises, and having the prophetic word confirmed by the Gospel, “let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.” (2 Corinthians 7:1). Let us press on to the full stature found in Christ Jesus our Lord and his pure and perfect love (Philippians 3:13-14). Amen.